Hint #12: The Reader’s Journey

It’s that time again.

Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.

Bad writing advice got you down? It’s not surprise: advice is often poisonous in a field like writing, where individual creativity and vision are paramount.

Yet the budding writer cannot be required to rebuild the entire art form from scratch. The ones still finding their footing need a lifeline.

What you could really use…is a hint.

“Hints: because you only need a little help.”

The Much-attacked Hero’s Journey

Some writers love it.

Others love to hate it.

But for better or worse, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health—we are all wedded to the Campbellian Monomyth.

Much as I might try to appear neutral in the everlasting war surrounding Joseph Campbell, my mask is simply too slippery, and I can’t help but show my true face.

Because in my own hero’s journey, where I have sojourned among the writers of the world, I have encountered a few who decry Campbell. Worst of all are those professional folklorists who accuse him of bastardizing their entire discipline, asserting that there are gaping holes in his theory, demanding that his book be stricken from the record.

And all I can think is, “How long will they kick against the pricks?”

Because the great and transformative stories of our time continue to dine at Campbell’s table. Whether it’s Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter megafranchise, or even The Lego Movie, the Campbellian Monomyth lives up to the promise of its name.

Those who renounce Campbell always end up orbiting around him against their will, or else they put out mediocre works that no one cares to read.

I’ve learned to smile politely at them and then go back to my own business.

The Other Journey

But this post is not actually about the Campbellian Monomyth. Nor is it about the hero’s journey. Those are subjects of theme and spirit. A good hint does not concern itself with the ethereal, but with the practical.

And it just so happens that a brilliant writer and Twitter influencer recently had something to say about the implementation of the hero’s journey, concerning how a writer should go about constructing it:

It is not enough to send a character on a journey.

You must send the reader with the character on a journey.

T. Alan Horne – Feb. 5, 2020

Or, to put it another way, the task of the writer is to chart and enforce two journeys. One will be trodden by the hero, and the other will be experienced by the reader.

Composing the Reader’s Journey

Stop me if the following sounds familiar: an ordinary person living a humdrum life one day meets a wizard who sends him on a quest that appears deceptively simple, yet as it develops, it will entangle that ordinary person in a conflict that will determine the fate of the world, and they will be forever changed by the part they played in such an epic undertaking.

Sounds just like the opening of a typical Monomyth story, yes?

Now allow me to say the exact same thing using different words:

An ordinary person who lives a humdrum life one day meets an author—in person or by reputation—who introduces him to a story that appears deceptively simple at first, with seemingly low stakes and straightforward plot. Yet, as the story develops, it will entangle that ordinary person in a conflict that will determine the fate of a world, and they will forever be changed by the part they played in witnessing such an epic undertaking.

Here we see that the life of the reader is merely a reflection of the life of the hero. If the hero gallivants off on his quest but the reader is left behind at square one, then the story is not immersive. In such a case, the reader may be taught the order of events and what happens within them, but he will never be able to penetrate the wall you have built around the story. He will be prevented from living inside it.

As blasphemous as it sounds, the story is not perfect until you have as much power over the reader’s destiny as you do over the hero’s. You must consider the reader as if he were a character in the book—someone who has a growth arc and a destination. Once you have that in hand, you can dictate the reader’s satisfaction with the story, since he is now just another character that you have written.

The Easy Way: Make a Viewpoint Character

Making the reader your puppet is no easy task. To simplify it, a hack was developed: transfer the reader’s consciousness into a character who is already in the story.

Most writers call this a “viewpoint character”.

A viewpoint character is someone who is ignorant of the ways your story world works. They can be as ignorant as the first-time reader, or just almost so.

Generally, they are also the main character (though exceptions exist). They begin in a geographic location that is simple—one that requires little explaining on the part of the author. It may even be a real place in the real world.

Yet the viewpoint character will inevitably be drawn from a familiar location into an unfamiliar one. This new location may be fantastical, like an alternate reality or distant planet. Or it may be quite reasonable, such as a prison, a brothel, or a high-stakes, illegal poker hall where more than money is gambled away.

And as the transition is made from the familiar to the unfamiliar, a million small details will be introduced the viewpoint character (and thus, to the reader). The unfolding of this new, unfamiliar world will be an education for the character/reader. It will give them lots of presents to unwrap as the story progresses.

And as long as there are gifts to unwrap, the story will remain interesting. This is why so many sequels fail: the writers run out of new information to reveal to the reader. As such, they end up either ending the series abruptly, or retreading old ground forever (or contradicting earlier installments in the series, or going off the rails entirely). The clever writer will always leave a few areas unexplored, in case the sequel bug refuses to stop biting them.

And if a viewpoint character is not used, such as for a story that uses an omniscient narrator, it becomes that much harder to get the reader to adopt the characters’ journey as their own (which is likely the reason so few people write in omniscient voice these days).

Try it Out

As this is only a hint, and not advice, I’m not going to give you any specifics about how to adapt your own writing to fit this model. But I will encourage you to get your hands dirty with it right away.

No matter what project you are currently working on, you should be able to look at any point of the story and determine not only where the protagonist is, but where the reader is. And if those are two different places then you had better have a good reason why they diverged, and also a plan to have them eventually come back together. Is your reader taking the same journey as your hero? Or one that is parallel to the hero? Or one that contradicts the hero?

In any case, the reader should be moving at the same speed as the hero. Otherwise, the narrative is bound to trip over itself.